Teaching Teachers How to Reach the Reluctant Reader Through Multimedia (When Theory-to-Practice Hits the Wall)

During fall 2001, a cohort of prospective teachers worked with reluctant readers (students who are at least two grade levels behind in reading proficiency) in local schools. These prospective teachers experimented with traditional reading strategies as well as some promising, new multimedia approaches with the goal of enhancing the reading and writing skills of reluctant readers. Although these graduate students were knowledgeable and enthusiastic about multimedia approaches, they found classroom environments in local schools hostile to technology. In general, classrooms lacked any sort of technological infrastructure, teachers exhibited openly negative attitudes towards technology, and there was no support for innovative approaches to teaching reluctant readers. Surprisingly, half of the cooperating teachers were philosophically opposed to individualization, and forbade students from working with reluctant readers at all.

Traditional approaches to enhancing the writing, reading, and thinking skills of adolescent reluctant readers have been drawn from research with young children. Elements from programs such as Reading Recovery (Sensenbaugh, 1994) and Success for All (Slavin & Moore 2000) have been adapted to serve the burgeoning population of aliterate and illiterate American teenagers. According to recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Greenwald, Persky, Campbell, & Mazzeo 1999), less than 20% of American teens are able to write proficiently or better. Millions of children cannot understand or correctly interpret written materials at an elementary level and may be classified as functionally illiterate (Kaestle, Campbell, Finn, Johnson, & Mickulecky 2001).

Stanovich (2000) and Alverman & Moore (1991) have noted the deleterious presence of Mathew Effects in adolescents. In many ways, reading is an intellectual multiplier. The more students read, the larger their vocabularies become, and the more proficient they become as readers. Likewise, when students rarely read, their skills deteriorate, especially as the level of difficulty with texts escalates as they matriculate through secondary school. So, an ineffective reader in second grade may likely become a non-reader by tenth grade.

Popular, traditional techniques for reluctant adolescent readers include K-W-L (in which the student writes all that he/she knows about a subject, what he/she might want to know, and what they eventually learned), Think-Pair-Share, reading aloud, repetitive reading, vocabulary enhancement strategies such as semantic feature analysis, guided reading, and structured free reading.

Among the most successful adapters of such strategies are the teachers at the Benchmark School in Pennsylvania, a school expressly designed for students who read two or more grade levels behind their peers. Benchmark uses a rigorous, structured learning environment that emphasizes goal-setting, repetition, phonics, choral reading, extensive reading at and below grade level in a variety of genres, and much intensive, one-on-one instruction. If all goes well, after several years of work, students eventually begin to read at or above grade level (Gaskins 1997).

Some researchers (Babbitt & Byrne 2000, Crowley 1995, and McBride 1999) have suggested that problems of self-esteem and self-efficacy, not reading comprehension, are as likely to contribute to poor reading performance as more intellectual causes. Such researchers usually advocate discovering student strengths and interests and using them as springboards to spur interest and achievement in reading.

Elementary schools have been at the forefront in adopting programs which allow students to choose reading materials in their areas of interest. Programs such as DEAR (drop everything and read) and Accelerated Reader require that students be allowed to self-select books and mandate time for free reading during the school day. However, with these programs, teachers usually organize, manage, and chart the books that have been read rather than help provide remedial instruction for students who have difficulties with the act of reading. Still, Davies and Beaucamps (1999) found evidence that when programs such as AR and DEAR are adapted for use in secondary school, overall reading achievement among participants has improved.

Recently, Baines (1997, 1999, 2000, 2001) has reported impressive results from utilizing multimedia to enhance students' reading comprehension and writing skills. According to Baines, electronic media help concretize thoughts and feelings so reading and writing become less daunting to reluctant readers. When a teacher uses images, music, and other non-linguistic stimuli as integral components in reading and writing, the quality of student engagement and achievement have been shown to take dramatic leaps. In a recent study of 12 reluctant readers who had previously failed a state competency test for writing, using multimedia techniques resulted in a 100% pass rate on the second administration of the state exam (Baines 1999).

One example of the multimedia approach is the Powerpoint poem, in which students begin by responding to a series of prompts. Student responses are revised into a poem. Then, students draw images or find and cut out images in magazines to correspond with every line in the poem. Next, students scan the images onto disk. Once images for each line of the poem have been scanned, students create a presentation, downloading the images into Powerpoint, typing out the appropriate text so that each Powerpoint slide represents one line of the poem, and adding sound effects and music. As a final step, students revise their original poems to include descriptions of the images and music.

Classroom Instruction and Field Experience
Most preservice and practicing secondary teachers never have had a course in reading nor do they perceive the teaching of reading to be within the domain of their job responsibilities. When confronted with a non-reader in the classroom, most secondary teachers would respond, "I'm a science teacher (or whatever their field of expertise), not a reading teacher!" (Lortie 1975; Price, Schultz, & Verdi 2001). To ameliorate the lack of training for secondary teachers in reading, a new graduate course was developed.

The new graduate course, required of graduate students also seeking teacher certification, covers a variety of approaches to helping the adolescent reluctant reader, including technologically-intensive approaches. Of the ten graduate students enrolled in the initial offering of the course, only one had any previous experience with using computers. (The student with some experience had a spouse who worked for the Public Broadcasting System and she had helped with editing a film once). Prior to the course, no student had used Powerpoint or created a webpage. Only half had ever used email. Of the ten, four were seeking certification in social studies, three in English, two in mathematics, and one in Spanish.

In addition to time spent on campus, the ten graduate students were required to work with a struggling reader in a local school for at least 40 hours during the course of the semester. As part of their coursework, students created films (many used I-movie), Powerpoint presentations, and webpages explicitly for use in their interactions with reluctant readers in the field experience. In their one-on-one interactions with reluctant readers, students were instructed to use both traditional and multimedia approaches, to document the effectiveness of all approaches that they tried, and to write up a case study depicting their successes, failures, and frustrations.

Cooperating teachers were alerted to the duties of the student and the contours of their assignment via a letter of introduction. The cooperating teachers were responsible for matching the student with a reluctant reader. At the end of the term, cooperating teachers were asked to complete an assessment of the student's attendance, progress, and professionalism.

Results of the Hypothetical Case Study
As part of their final exams, students were given a hypothetical case study depicting the plight of two tenth grade football players named Augie and Javier who tended to misbehave and whose achievement tests indicated that they read on the third grade level. As in the field experience, students were asked to devise a set of lessons and activities that would help improve the reading and writing skills of Augie and Javier, who were failing badly in most of their classes.

In the hypothetical case study, 8 of 10 students chose both traditional and multimedia approaches. The most popular traditional approaches included K-W-L, allowing students to self-select books (through programs such as Accelerated Reader or DEAR), learning logs, goal-setting, and utilizing reading recovery. K-W-L and other traditional approaches were seen as "innovative" by students, who had little familiarity with such pedagogical techniques. The most popular multimedia approaches included using Powerpoint, the Internet, film, and the creation of a webpage describing favorite books and magazines.

Students     Traditional approaches     Multimedia approaches
10                         10                                     8

Table 1: Student use of traditional and multimedia approaches in the hypothetical case study

Although the final exam did not ask students to expressly address it, most students also paid great heed to affective issues:

"Knowing that Javier has a violent temper, I would first make sure that the class as a whole is constantly kept busy so that all students would have less time to engage in unwanted behavior."

"To improve their knowledge of English, I would try to draw on their strengths as much as possible in order to increase their sense of self-efficacy, which appears to be very low."

"A probable cause for their continued classroom disruptions is their inability to read and to comprehend text."

Obviously, most students in the graduate course viewed teaching from an affective perspective, a view Schwartz (1987) has called the "missionary mythology" of teaching. In their position as inexperienced teachers, especially the area of reading diagnostics, their prescriptive solutions indicated affective rather than cognitive concerns. In explaining how multimedia might be used to enhance reading, students wrote:

"If Augie liked baseball, I might ask him to do a Powerpoint presentation over the beginnings of baseball. Who were the important people and what were the names of the teams? Are any of the teams still around? One book that would help Augie is A History of America's Game."

"I would have Javier and Augie collect pictures and find music to accompany a Powerpoint poem written about football."

"To teach Augie and Javier Spanish, I would use a bouncy audio tape which combines the capitals of South America with lots of percussion, clips from Walt Disney videos in Spanish…perhaps involve them in designing a website if there's any interest in computers."

Two students chose not to even try multimedia approaches, even in the case study.

Hitting the Wall
Students were required to complete 40 hours of work with a reluctant reader in a local school. In general, the response from cooperating teachers to having a graduate student in the classroom was not overly enthusiastic. In Texas, where an obsession with student performance on the state assessment (TAAS-Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) is de rigueur, half of the cooperating teachers (five of ten) forbade graduate students from working one-on-one with an individual student. Representative of the attitude of "not singling out students" was a cooperating teacher who wrote, "When you ask your class to work with only one student, that student's self-esteem is damaged. Everyone in class will know who needs the help. That humiliates the student."
On the other hand, in the case studies of the five students who were allowed to work individually with reluctant readers, most registered surprise by the willingness of reluctant readers to participate. Representative responses from graduate students about how well they were received are as follows:

"Sam and Terry were relegated to a permanent seat in the hall so they wouldn't disrupt class. Although I figured that I would meet with great resistance, they seemed anxious to participate. Even giddy sometimes."

"Delanie told me, 'I think it is fun when you come hang out in my classroom!' That made me feel pretty good."

"Bill plays sports and hasn't been doing well at all in most of his courses. So, in addition to helping him in class, I have shown up at a couple of his games. As a result, he has started pulling up his grades and his attitude seems to have changed.

Despite the apparent successes of the five graduate students who were allowed to work individually with reluctant readers, no graduate student used any multimedia approaches. Although the school district had recently received millions of dollars in funding for technology, graduate students noted the dearth of equipment in the classroom designated for student use. Not only did none of the ten cooperating teachers use technology in instruction (a computer, a camcorder, or anything electronic beyond a transparency machine) at any point during the semester, seven advocated against the use of technology in teaching. Student responses included the following:

"Mrs. Paulito says that teaching is too complicated already, that throwing technology in won't improve student learning. She seems too busy with the TAAS and discipline problems to think about much else."

"When I asked Mr. Suarez why he doesn't use technology, he laughed. He said that the district tried to force them to use computers once, but that they backed off because he knew they couldn't enforce it."

Although students learned the multimedia approaches and even applied them in the hypothetical case studies, they viewed the classroom environment as antithetical to innovation . No students used multimedia in their field experience. One student adapted the Powerpoint poem so that it could be done by using construction paper (with each line of the poem and corresponding images pasted on separate pieces of paper) and a cassette player.

Students         Students allowed to work 1-on-1 with a reluctant reader     Traditional approaches     Multimedia approaches
10                                             5                                                        5                                 0

Table 2: Student use of traditional and multimedia approaches in field experience

Providing Help Where Help is Needed
Although multimedia approaches to teaching reading to reluctant readers are new, exciting, and powerful, several factors militated against their successful implementation in our study. In general, cooperating teachers perceived that any technologically-intense form of instruction added unnecessary complications to their lessons, thus making them feel more "stressed out." Also, cooperating teachers acknowledged that they lacked the appropriate technological infrastructure and training to use multimedia approaches effectively, though they didn't really want equipment or training. One teacher commented, "I have enough to do already without worrying about computers, too!"

On the bright side, despite their initial lack of technological expertise, the graduate students in the new course seemed willing and able to implement multimedia approaches had they had access to the appropriate technologies and a modicum of support from their cooperating teachers. However, with the strong bias against technology openly displayed by cooperating teachers, many of the graduate students came away from the experience questioning the feasibility of implementing multimedia approaches at all.

The most surprising finding from our study was the reticence of cooperating teachers to allow any individualization for reluctant readers. Although each teacher acknowledged that they had several poor readers and that poor readers were the most likely to fail the course, they forbade 1-on-1 contact, usually on the grounds that such individual attention would likely endanger a student's self esteem. Yet, graduate students reported reluctant readers as open, even anxious to receive personal attention. In the five cases in which cooperating teachers allowed graduate students to help individual students, all five reported some degree of success using traditional approaches. One can only wonder how reluctant readers, who have always struggled with text, can be expected to suddenly transform themselves into accomplished readers without some guidance and direction. Paradoxically, it is the reluctant readers who are the farthest behind who could most benefit from the kinds of jumps in reading and writing competence possible through new multimedia approaches. In our study, these most reluctant of readers were the ones least likely to receive such instruction.

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